I have struggled for the better part of a decade with whether or not to post what I’m about to share with you. Not because it’s all that profound or deep or even that interesting. But because it is one of the most intensely personal things I’ve ever experienced, and somehow not putting it out there publicly was a way for me to protect myself and pretend that, to a certain degree, it didn’t really happen. To let some, small, secluded part of my brain live in a happy land where bad things don’t take place. Ultimately, that’s not a fair thing to do to our loved ones, or ourselves. In the light of broad tragedies like the Boston Marathon bombings, or reminders of personal devastations like what would’ve been little Deacon’s recent birthday, it just seems selfish of me to shut out the wonderful memories I have of these people just because I don’t want to accept the unpleasantries along with the rest. So yeah, this isn’t going to be one of my humorous posts. Maybe check back next week.
The summer of my senior year of college, I was on a date with a girl (seeing one of the Harry Potter movies, couldn’t tell you which one) who told me that she’d seen a story about my college in the paper (yes, that’s how old I am, people were still getting some of their news from the actual newspaper when I was in college). I asked what the story was, and she told me that someone from my college had passed away unexpectedly. I went to a pretty small school (3,000-ish undergrad enrollment at the time), so I expected that even if we hadn’t been friends, it’d at least be a name I’d recognize.
Unfortunately, “recognize” would turn out to be a massive understatement.
I don’t need to walk any of you through what mourning the loss of a loved one is like. The sad truth of this broken world is that most — if not all — of us have experienced such a loss.
Brittany was a year younger than me, had transferred in from a different college after her freshman year, and as a result had a significantly smaller circle of friends than the rest of us (which I assume is why I heard about her passing by such happenstance vs. from a mutual friend). In retrospect I would say that we dated for a while, though this was college in the pre-facebook era, so defining the relationship was a lot more ambiguous than it is now. Or maybe (definitely) I was just more of a schmuck then than I am now. Probably a combination of the two. But despite the shifting title of what we were, we’d remained fairly close through it all, and I always kind of had the feeling that Brittany could be the sort of girl I’d end up with (though I wouldn’t have phrased it that way at the time…and indeed her loss may have inadvertently triggered/exacerbated “commitment-phobic Dustin”). Regardless of the context, Brittany was the first close person in my age range that I’d ever lost before, and I wasn’t equipped to handle it very well (though I honestly don’t think that anyone ever is, or ever can be, or ever should be ready for that sort of loss).
A couple months later, I wrote a song about her and I wrote a letter to her parents.
I never sent it.
I don’t know why I didn’t. Maybe it just felt too presumptuous to impose myself and my less-significant grief on her family like that, or maybe (definitely) I was just too afraid to make her loss fully real by acknowledging it.
After all these years, I don’t know if any of that has changed, and I certainly don’t feel any braver than I did that night we walked out on that Harry Potter movie so I could go sit on a park bench and cry. But maybe (definitely) I’ve been selfish long enough, and it’s time to realize that moving on isn’t the same as forgetting about. That letting go isn’t the same as giving up.
With that said, here is the letter. It is unedited from the original draft minus me removing her last name out of respect to her family not necessarily wanting their loss published on the internet, even after this much time has passed.
I’m sitting here staring at a blank computer screen, listening to a mix-CD that I made for a girl. A girl named Brittany.
And I am crying.
Not because the songs on the CD are that powerful, or because the memories are that sad, but because I miss your daughter. We were never best friends, we were never an official “Couple”, we never even hung out as often as we could’ve; but Brittany and I had a strong bond that was somehow indefinable by the world’s terms—something better than the word “friend” could do justice to.
Seeing your daughter made me happy — it’s as simple as that. Whether it was passing her in a hallway and catching up, sitting in the grass discussing life, or attending a class together just so we could ignore the professor’s lecture and talk to each other — every instance brought a special kind of smile to my face and a unique joy to my day…and my life. Brittany was prettier than the “popular” girls, kinder than the “nice” girls, and smarter than all of them. Brittany could’ve been the proverbial queen bee of our college, complete with an army of mindless drones to follow her every command, but she chose to remain true to herself and her beliefs and sacrifice ultimate popularity in exchange for ultimate reality. She chose to make a difference. She chose to be better than the world required her to be. And she chose to be my friend. The latter of those might be the least important to the world, but it was everything to me. Sure, lots of people at school know who I am, or know my name or a good story about me, but Brittany knew me. The real me that most everyone else never took the time to find. Whenever I saw her name pop up on my cell phone’s caller ID, I didn’t cringe and cancel the call like usual, but rather, I would smile from ear to ear because when Brittany called, I knew that the highlight of my day had arrived and that even if I was having the worst day possible, the next thirty minutes of conversation would be perfect.
Unfortunately, kind words and wonderful memories can’t bring Brittany back or duplicate the sound of her voice, but I wanted you to know that she has always and will always hold a special place in my heart, and that my world has a little more gray in it without Brittany around to brighten it up. Brittany was a spectacular girl, an extraordinary human being, and genuinely beautiful person — both inside and out. It will forever sadden my heart to think that ultimately, Brittany’s demise was the result of a disorder that caused her to believe that she could possibly be any more perfect than she already was. My solace is the knowledge that Brittany walked with God, and that he would never abandon her or exclude her from his love. I don’t know if that comforts you or lessens your grief as it does mine, but I pray that one day it might.
Someday the tears will stop. Someday the pain will subside. Someday the memories will fade. But the love that friends and family have for Brittany will never dissipate.
It may be clichéd to say that though Brittany’s candle has been extinguished, her light will continue to shine eternally — but it doesn’t make it any less true for your luminous daughter.
The warmth of Brittany’s brightness will always be felt by those who cared for her.
I will miss you, Brittany. Always.
With the deepest sympathy and love,
As I said, I don’t think my letter contains anything revolutionary, it just felt like it was time to give Brittany the respect she deserves and the eulogy I didn’t have the heart to deliver that summer. The Coachella music festival was last weekend, and I always think of her around this time (before she passed we used to discuss the fest a lot — it was much more representative of the underground music scene back then, and we’d made plans to attend the festival that year) so it’s fitting that it coincides with this letter. But the message is a timeless — albeit unoriginal — one: make today count. Whether that means an extra gesture of kindness to those close to you or mustering the courage to start something risky or long overdue, take advantage of today.
We were put on this earth to pursue active love toward one another, don’t wait until your loved ones (or you, yourself) are just memories to start living out your true purpose. One day all men will die, but love lives on. God conquered death not with might, but with love. Love lives on.
“For God so loved…”